Lessons on how to fight terror

A message from the United Kingdom: Don't torture. Don't shoot boys who throw stones. And don't imagine for a moment that there is any guarantee of success.

Topics: Terrorism,

Britain has been fighting wars against terrorism for most of the years since the end of World War II. The longest war has been in Ireland; but British troops have also fought Jewish and Arab terrorists in Palestine, from 1945-47; Greek terrorists in Greece and Cyprus, Arabs in Aden, Yemen, Oman and Dhofar; Chinese communists in the Malaysian jungles in the 1950s, and so, almost endlessly, on. We’ve lost some, we’ve won some. In Ireland — our most publicized grapple with terror — I think we’ve fought a draw, despite being incomparably richer, more numerous and better armed than our opponents.

Here are some of the lessons we have learned:

We have learned something about wars: They go on for longer and are more expensive than anyone imagines when they start. No one could have believed, when the first troops went into Northern Ireland in 1969, that they would still be there 30 years later, still ready to fight. But the only short wars against terrorism are those that the terrorists win. So accept now that you will still be fighting in 10 or 20 years’ time, because you will.

Ask now of any action you mean to take — bombing, assassination, ground war — whether it means there will be more or fewer terrorists when the children who are now in preschool grow up to fighting age. This is not an argument against the use of violence. Violence is absolutely essential; but it has to be used so that it conveys the right political message to the people who might become terrorists when they grow up. The state has to become as good at theater as its enemies. There’s a short version of this lesson: “Don’t shoot the boys throwing stones.”

We’ve learned that terrorism demands a special kind of war, which is more like Sim City than a first-person shooter like Unreal. Just as in Sim City, you win by keeping civilization going. Killing the bad guys is a side effect. And, just as in Sim City, no single strategy works, even when it is right and necessary.

Violence on its own won’t work.

Diplomacy on its own won’t work.

Gathering intelligence on its own won’t work.

Buying the sympathies of the people who now sympathize with the terrorists won’t work on its own, whether you pay in money, blood or effort.

Any successful democratic operation against terrorism needs a blend of all these four methods, and getting the proportions right is an art: It can’t be learned from newspaper columns.



Another rather counterintuitive consequence of this is that fewer troops are almost always better than more. Fighting terrorism needs really first-class soldiers. They must be braver and cleverer than their opponents, though not nearly so cruel. They need to be really highly trained, speak the local language and have medical skills. In poor countries British special forces teams are expected to have medical training so that they can bring immediate practical help to the villagers whose trust they must win.

Demoralized, lost and nervous soldiers make more recruits for the other side than ever they eliminate. All of the high-flown and complex policy considerations above have to be put into practice by troops on the ground, acting on their own initiative and understanding. Not many, in even the best armies, are going to be much good for that.

This may sound like hand-waving, but it has one immediate practical consequence: Don’t use torture. Torture is the crack cocaine of anti-terrorism because, for a while, it works. The terrorists will certainly use it. But everyone tries it. The Brits did it in Northern Ireland, the Israelis use it on the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority uses it on Palestinians too. The French, in their Algerian war against terrorism in the 1950s, turned it into an instrument of policy. But the price is higher than a democracy can pay. Either the people who have to do the torture are sickened, and spread their disillusion throughout society (this is what happened in France); or they are not sickened. They come to enjoy it; and then you have lost the values that you are fighting for. Either way, after a time, it stops working. The Russians in Chechnya can torture all they like. They still can’t win the war there.

We’ve learned some very hard lessons about terrorists. The third-hardest is that almost anyone can become a terrorist. To be a successful terrorist, you need to be brave, clever, ruthless and cruel. But to be an unsuccessful terrorist you need only a willingness to kill innocent civilians for political ends; and in that sense the world is full of potential terrorists.

The second-hardest lesson is that, if the most effective terrorists of all are smart, ruthless, farsighted and brave as well as cruel, the second most effective terrorists are usually dead. Martyrdom works. The suicide of a suicide bomber does as much for his cause as the bomb does; possibly more. If there was one thing that made the IRA impossible to defeat, it was the long, slow, public suicide of the hunger strikers. Young men who see other young men dying for a cause don’t always, or often, run away. Sometimes they find this bravery inspiring, and dedicate their own lives to the cause. You can’t beat terrorism without killing terrorists. But just killing them won’t do the job, and a terrorist who repents and surrenders represents a greater and more lasting victory. In the end, you reach the goal of “no more terrorists” not when they are all dead, but when some are dead, some have stopped terrorism and no new young men are coming along to take their places in the organization.

That leads to maybe the hardest lesson to swallow: “Terrorist” is not a lifetime badge. Just as almost anyone can become a terrorist, so can even hardened criminals stop what they do, and turn back into democratically elected politicians with whom we must negotiate. Menachem Begin was an Irgun terrorist operating against the British Army in Palestine, responsible, among other things, for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, in which 91 people died. Decades later, he came to the United Kingdom on a state visit as prime minister of Israel. Gerry Adams ran the IRA in Belfast, and now he is a member of Parliament. Martin McGuinness ran the IRA in Londonderry, yet became minister of education in Northern Ireland. In the Middle East today, Arafat and Sharon have both been responsible for horrendous massacres of civilians. But we deal with them as politicians; and this is quite right.

Terrorists are not “mindless.” They may be politically ignorant, but they have political aims and they are rational about achieving them. These aims do not become illegitimate just because terrible means are used to gain them. In Ireland, this is clearer than in most places. The Republican terrorists are fighting for a united Ireland; the Loyalist ones, for an Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom. Both of these aims are recognized as perfectly legitimate and democratic. In fact, you can’t vote for any party in Northern Ireland without voting for one sort of Ireland or the other. So what makes terrorists unacceptable is not their political aims, but the means they use to gain them. Don’t confuse the two or you will only fool yourselves. The terrorists need to learn this, too, but I doubt they read Salon.

Another thing we’ve learned about terrorism, and that you’re learning in New York, is that terror doesn’t frighten civilian populations. It makes them angry and determined to fight back. But there is an important sense in which enemy civilians are not the people a terrorist wants to frighten anyway. He needs to kill some of them at pretty regular intervals; and he needs to exasperate the rest, to make them stupid and angry, and finally fill them with war-weariness. These are achievable aims. They don’t involve spreading terror among his enemies. The people a terrorist really needs to terrify are on his side: They are the ones who might give intelligence about him. The people who are really frightened of the IRA don’t live in Protestant areas, or in England. They live in Catholic ghettos, where they might be tortured or murdered at any moment if they displease the local gangsters. The police are usually powerless to help. If they do eventually come to trust the police to protect them, then you’ve won, but that may never happen.

I know all this sounds frightfully gloomy. The papers are full of hairy-chested experts explaining how the war on terrorism must now be won. But I think that any one of your British allies who has lived through the war against the IRA will have a simple reaction when he hears these terrorism experts explain that the states that shelter terrorists or sympathize with their aims are just as guilty as the terrorists themselves, and that terrorism can only be defeated if these states are wiped out. Do Richard Perle or Ann Coulter believe that we Brits would have won our war if we’d bombed Dublin, Boston and New York?

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

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